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International travel restrictions impact migration estimates

The latest international migration estimates up to February 2020 are more uncertain than usual, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions in New Zealand and other countries, Stats NZ has released.

"We are in an extraordinary situation with international travel severely curtailed," population insights senior manager Brooke Theyers says.

"The normal pattern of travel and migration flows has been disrupted."

Many international flights worldwide have been cancelled in the past few weeks as governments try to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"Thousands of people who arrived in New Zealand in recent months have not been able to return home yet, or are staying longer, potentially inflating the estimated number of migrant arrivals," Brooke says.

Provisional estimates for the year February 2020 indicate 65,200 more migrant arrivals than migrant departures. At 65,200, annual net migration may be the highest on record, surpassing the previous peak of about 64,000 in mid-2016.

However, this net migration estimate is much less certain than the estimate for six months ago, which is 52,800 for the year ended August 2019.

"How much the early estimates will be revised in coming months will depend on when international flights and travel resume in earnest," says Brooke.

"The provisional estimates have seen significant revisions in the past, even when travel patterns were normal. This is not a normal time."

‘Migrant arrivals’ are overseas residents, including New Zealand citizens, who cumulatively spend 12 of the next 16 months in New Zealand after arriving.

‘Migrant departures’ are New Zealand residents, including non-New Zealand citizens, who cumulatively spend 12 of the next 16 months out of New Zealand after departing.

Migrant arrivals and departures include the flows of New Zealand citizens as well as the flows of non-New Zealand citizens as both affect the population living in New Zealand.

The classification of travellers as migrants is based on their time spent in and out of New Zealand, not what visa type or passport they cross the border on, and not on their responses on arrival cards. Given this, we need to observe up to 16 months of travel history, using the 12/16-month rule, to definitively classify a border crossing as a migrant movement. Border crossing data after February 2020 therefore informs the latest migration estimates.

Overseas visitors staying longer

Many visitors to New Zealand, including those who arrived on work and student visas, have been unable to depart since international travel restrictions became widespread in March 2020. The number of visitors in New Zealand up until March has not been unusual. However, their prolonged stay in New Zealand is likely to cause an initial over-estimation of migrant arrivals and net migration for the most recent months, November 2019 to February 2020.

For example, in February 2020 there were 373,000 overseas visitor arrivals, and 36.5 per cent have stayed for 15 days or more. By comparison, of the 418,000 overseas visitor arrivals in February 2019, 32.5 per cent stayed for 15 days or more.

Annual estimates of migrant arrivals from South Africa, Germany, India, and France have had the largest increases between the years ended February 2019 and 2020.

If, and when, visitors currently in New Zealand depart, the provisional migrant arrival and net migration estimates for the November 2019 to February 2020 months, in particular, are likely to be revised down.

Even if these visitors have departed, a prolonged stay in New Zealand increases their chance of being initially classified as a migrant arrival. If these visitors remain out of New Zealand, the provisional migrant arrival and net migration estimates, for the months that they arrived, are also likely to be revised down.

Net migration of non-New Zealand citizens for the years ended August 2019 and February 2020 are provisionally estimated at 57,900 and 64,400, respectively.

New Zealand residents staying put

The travel of New Zealand residents has been curtailed. As a result, there have been fewer short-term and long-term (migrant) departures of New Zealand citizens since late February, relative to the same period in previous years. Provisional border-crossing data for New Zealand citizens is indicative of a drop in departures of New Zealand residents.

In addition, the estimated migrant arrivals of New Zealand citizens have increased in recent months. If these people subsequently depart rather than staying long-term, then provisional migrant arrival estimates for these months are likely to get revised down.

Net migration of New Zealand citizens for the years ended August 2019 and February 2020 are provisionally estimated at -5,100 and 800, respectively.

Although 800 is only a small net gain, this would be the first time on record that annual net migration of New Zealand citizens has been positive, surpassing the previous ‘peak’ of about -300 in late 1983.

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